Hilde Michnia – née Lisiewicz – was 22 when she was recorded on camera being taken prisoner by British forces and driven away from the camp.
But she told a Welt on Sonntag reporter that “I did nothing” when he visited her at home – despite the fact that a tribunal sentenced her to a year’s imprisonment in 1945 for her involvement at Bergen Belsen.
She claims not to have seen the corpses or any of the horrific atrocities being committed all around her.
Investigators are now trying to reconstruct Michnia’s life before and after she joined the SS, which provided the guard battalions responsible for watching prisoners at the camp.
From unemployed to the SS
Based on Michnia’s own records, court records from that first “Belsen trial” in 1945 and studies into the “death marches”, she joined the Reichsarbeitsdienst (Reich Labour Service) in 1940.
By 1943 she was supervising Jewish slave labourers from the Groß-Rosen concentration camp in a munitions factory in Grünberg, in modern-day Poland.
In 1944, she joined the SS officially and returned to the weapons factory after a brief period of training.
But Groß-Rosen was evacuated before the advancing Red Army could reach it, with Michnia leading an unknown number of female inmates on a 60-kilometre march in January 1945.
She finally reached Bergen-Belsen in March 1945, where she watched over labourers in the kitchen until the camp was freed on April 15th.
At Michnia’s trial in November, one prisoner said she had beaten and kicked two other prisoners to death, while another said she had beaten others with a stick.
“Lots of prisoners had to go to the infirmary, but I don’t know if they died,” she said.
Michnia defended herself by saying that she had only “hit them in the face”, and had done “only her duty”.
In a 2004 video recorded at the Bergen Belsen memorial, in which she reveals details of the 1945 liberation of the camp, Michnia’s memory is more forthcoming than now, ten years later.
“One fine day it was ‘carry corpses’, and then for the first time we saw how many corpses there were. There were mountains of bodies… we carried bodies for four days and threw them into the mass graves.”
While there is clear witness testimony – and records of her own speaking out – about Michnia’s spell at Bergen-Belsen, reconstructing the death march is more difficult.
But there is no evidence that a march of only 60 kilometres took place, making it far more likely that she was present for one of the four-week-long death marches in which thousands of women died.
One of those went directly from Grünberg to Bergen-Belsen, with many of the prisoners dying as they were left to forage for food from nearby farms during rest stops.
Israeli historian Daniel Blatman writes in his book “The Death Marches” that up to half of the 700 to 800 women present on that march died.
‘No-one came to us’
One survivor, Catheryne Morgan, remembered in 2002 that “it was a wonder that we didn’t freeze to death where we stood. We pressed against one another and tried to march that way.
“We always stopped at night where the animals were kept… every night a girl would try and hide in the straw, the ones who knew they couldn’t go any further.
“But sadly every morning when we woke the dogs were sent to us… they looked through the straw for hidden people.”
Morgan remembers that the Germans whose villages they marched through gave them no help, despite seeing that they were starving, defenceless children.
“No-one came to us to give us a piece of bread or a sip of water. No-one.”
‘A terrible time’
Michnia herself has only confessed to taking part in a short march from Groß-Rosen to Guben.
“It was a terrible time. We had nothing to eat and nowhere to sleep. I can barely remember, because it was so terrible,” she wrote to an Irish neighbour in 2008.
That neighbour was the one who made Holocaust survivor Tomi Reichental, who survived Bergen-Belsen as a nine-year-old boy, aware of Michnia.
Reichental, born in Slovakia, shot a documentary about his life and shows his efforts to meet with Michnia – hoping to reconcile with her by shaking her hand.
But Michnia has always refused to meet Reichental.
“What makes me sad isn’t that she’s behaved like this,” he said. “But that she is still stuck in the worldview of the 1940s.”